UK healthcare startup offers its workers free virus test – if they share results


  • Startups
  • Tuesday, 21 Apr 2020

Lab scientists working to validate rapid IgM/IgG antibody tests of Covid-19 samples from recovered patients in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Babylon is one of the first UK companies to wade into offering antibody testing on its workforce. The tests have the potential to show whether a person has ever been exposed to the often-deadly pathogen, and thus indicate whether they have developed immunity to the virus and can safely leave confinement for work and other destinations. — AFP

Babylon Healthcare Services Ltd has offered to pay for its UK employees to take Covid-19 antibody tests if they agree to share the results with the British telemedicine provider, raising concerns about medical privacy.

The startup will use the same pin-prick blood test kits that it sells to consumers to monitor kidney and liver functions, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation. A Babylon spokeswoman declined to disclose where the tests are being conducted, but said the test has "99% specificity and 95% sensitivity”.

Babylon "realises how critical testing is to fighting Covid-19 and we hope to use any capacity and capabilities we have to assist”, the spokeswoman said.

Babylon is one of the first UK companies to wade into offering antibody testing on its workforce. The tests have the potential to show whether a person has ever been exposed to the often-deadly pathogen, and thus indicate whether they have developed immunity to the virus and can safely leave confinement for work and other destinations.

The search for accurate antibody screening kits has been beset by challenges. Millions of tests that European governments, including the UK, purchased from China have been classified as inaccurate by researchers, and unable to detect the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 in some cases. That’s complicated efforts to determine the scope of the outbreak and get economies back on track.Inaccurate testing also poses danger, both to people who take the test and their families, friends and coworkers. People who believe they have immunity to the disease and don’t stop distancing themselves from others may catch the disease and possibly spread it.

Babylon’s test itself is voluntary, according to the people familiar with the situation, who didn’t want to be identified discussing internal information. It’s also being seen internally as a pilot for a wider roll-out of Covid-19 testing to consumers and organisations, the people said. Babylon said nobody is obligated to take the test and the company is following government advice about return-to-work procedure.

"This is really important for us to begin to get an understanding of how many Babylonians have antibodies, and therefore some immunity,” said an email sent to staff on April 14 by Babylon’s HR department and seen by Bloomberg. "As we are one of the first groups in the country with access to this test, it is a big privilege.”

Babylon’s conditioning of the test on sharing the results with the company also presents problems, such as whether employees might be "unduly influenced to have the test and disclose the result”, said Daniel Sokol, a lawyer and medical ethicist based in London.

"There are many questions that need to be answered before we can give this the ethical all-clear,” Sokol added.

Officials and scientists in Italy, Germany, and other countries are considering giving certificates to people who’ve been shown, based on antibody tests, to have recovered from Covid-19. In the UK health minister Matt Hancock has floated the idea of an immunity wristband. Yet experts have said that broadcasting one’s health status may lead to a two-tiered workforce – immune and not immune. Some may be induced to take the chance of trying to contract and recover from the virus in order to place the presence of antibodies on job applications.

A world where the antibodies open the door "might create an incentive to get sick to be able to recover and get back to work”, said Allison Hoffman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specialises in health care law and policy.

Babylon is one of the UK’s largest health-tech startups by valuation. Last year it raised US$550mil (RM2.41bil) from new investors such as Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, valuing the company at more than US$2bil (RM8.79bil). Hancock was criticised by medical professionals and opposition lawmakers in 2018 when he seemed to endorse Babylon in a British newspaper editorial authored under his name but sponsored by the technology company. A government spokesman said at the time there was no conflict of interest. – Bloomberg

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